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By The rallies in New York City that hailed the killing of Osama bin Laden by American troops show how difficult it is to appropriately mark victory, writes Kanishk Tharoor The author is a writer and scholar based in New York City
  • Published 5.05.11

The most ghostly place in New York City is its financial district. The neighbourhood empties by nightfall, drained of its grey legions of corporate workers. While the rest of Manhattan hums with activity late into the night, this district’s canyons of glass grow dark and silent. It can feel eerie walking here after hours, with the streets totally lifeless and the looming skyscrapers pressing in close. In the midst of this brooding monumentality, you find the glowing open wound of New York, a crater fenced off by cranes and tall, harsh lights: Ground Zero.

By the time I reached Ground Zero in the early hours of Monday morning, the normally empty streets echoed with raucous life. A crowd had descended on the site of the World Trade Center, jubilant with the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. Men climbed trees and lampposts, spraying those below with champagne. Others mounted the shoulders of their friends to wave American flags, sing the national anthem, proclaim the singular greatness of the US army, and lead the throngs in chants, including “Obama 1, Osama 0!” and the insistent “U-S-A! U-S-A!,” as well as other less polite slogans. There was a crowing, tribal tone to the rally, akin to the celebrations of rabid football or cricket fans.

These scenes in New York — alongside similar exultation at the gates of the White House — were broadcast around the world as examples of the rough triumphalism with which Americans greeted bin Laden’s killing. Many people, both inside and outside the United States of America, questioned the spirit of these celebrations; on Monday, I appeared on a BBC World Service discussion programme in which many expressed dismay at the chest-thumping in New York and Washington, deeming it inappropriate and inflammatory. In light of the continuing turmoil spawned by the 9/11 attacks and the US “war on terror,” the critics said, surely it was undignified and wrong to delight so crudely in bin Laden’s assassination, regardless of his numerous sins and undoubted cruelty.

Though I generally agreed with this critique, I urged listeners not to read too much into the raw and crass reactions of the crowd, which mostly consisted of young, university-age students, many of them drunk. Moreover, there were not many people at Ground Zero when I was there, only hundreds, not thousands, in a city of millions. Yet journalists and camera crews in their dozens nibbled around the edges of the clump of revellers, inflating and sensationalizing what was not really that large a rally. Sadly, pictures of New Yorkers as they celebrated death have now become defining images of the local mood.

As a New Yorker myself, I can only hope such images are not truly representative. I, too, was uncomfortable amid the celebrations at Ground Zero. In small part, this was because even though I have lived in New York most of my life and consider it my home, I am not American, and therefore I am insensible to the fervour of that bellicose flag-waving. In larger part, I simply find it difficult to see joy in the indifferent face of violence and death.

But more poignantly, the scene at Ground Zero made me think about a very different moment nearly ten years ago here in New York. In the nights after the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers gathered in squares and public spaces across the city, lighting candles, laying wreaths, holding vigil together and finding solace in that melancholy unity created by tragedy. We had all seen the smoke and ash and ruin at the heart of our city. It was a sombre time, but I remember very few expressions of bloodlust or demands for vengeance.

Strength, graciousness and real togetherness could be found in the solidarity of New Yorkers ten years ago. By contrast, the rallies that hailed the killing of bin Laden show how difficult it is to appropriately mark victory. Hubris is easy; managing humility and reflection in a moment of triumph is much harder.

Much of the US media wrongly described the festivities at Ground Zero earlier this week in transcendent terms of “unity,” “healing,” and final “closure” after a decade of trauma. In truth, many New Yorkers, even those who almost lost their lives in the attacks, were reluctant to share in the rowdy euphoria. When asked about bin Laden’s killing by The New York Times, Harry Waizer, a man who worked in the World Trade Center and survived its collapse, explained that “if this means there is one less death in the future, then I’m glad for that. But I just can’t find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama bin Laden.”

Barack Obama, the US president, plans to visit Ground Zero today in a not-so-subtle attempt to maximize the political capital of the moment. He will be appropriately sober in the ghostly shadows of Ground Zero. He will praise the work of his security and intelligence forces. And he will claim, as he already has, to have brought America’s most hated enemy to “justice.”

But the noisy celebrations that disturbed the nightly quiet of the financial district this week had less to do with justice than the grisly satisfaction of revenge. Bin Laden probably deserved his fate. But if retribution is justice, it is only the most desolate, impoverished kind of justice. In the weeks and months after 9/11, a famous quotation of Mahatma Gandhi popped up in public displays across the city: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” New Yorkers live in an international city that is irrevocably in the world and of the world. They would do well to remember this simple wisdom which has long been theirs.